Rocky Milana knows exactly when it's time each fall to install the winter tires on his family's rear-wheel-drive (RWD) van: His wife tells him.

He knows better than to procrastinate as the sky darkens and forecasters mention snow. “If I'm late, I hear about it,” says Milana, manager of vehicle dynamics and testing for BorgWarner Automotive's TorqTransfer Systems.

He handles the chore willingly each fall, swapping all-season radials for the Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires he purchased five years ago for his '99 Dodge Ram conversion van. In spring, the winter tires are stored and the all-season rubber returns.

Milana is among the tens of thousands of cold-weather motorists who have rediscovered the benefits of winter tires, which over the past 20 years had been muscled out of the North American market by the arrival of all-season radials.

In suburban Detroit, Milana lives on a twisty road that stretches nearly a mile. Each winter, at least one neighbor ends up in a snow-filled ditch. When Milana is out of town, the Blizzaks give him peace of mind that his wife and four small children won't join the ditch-bound neighbors.

Winter tire sales in North America have crept up steadily by single-digit increments in recent years. In 2004, sales shot up more than 25% over 2003 (from 8.5 million to 11 million winter tires), helped along by memories of that year's harsh winter.

Retailers sold some 245 million replacement tires in the U.S. and Canada in 2004, and about 4% of them (10 million) were winter tires, industry sources say.

Several factors have contributed to the upward spike. Bridgestone began an aggressive marketing campaign several years ago for its Blizzak tires, and other producers have followed suit.

Likewise, online retailers such as The Tire Rack have carved out a successful niche by making it easier than ever to buy winter tires.

Milana purchased his four Bridgestones through The Tire Rack and says the price was wholly competitive with local discount tire outlets. Milana paid a mere $5 per tire to have them shipped directly to his door. A local mechanic installed them on his van.

In addition, as the North American market skews toward RWD pickups and SUVs, drivers are discovering these vehicles' handling and traction deficiencies, yielding fertile new ground for winter-tire sales.

Likewise, an increasing number of young enthusiasts are opting for high-performance summer tires, which are wholly ineffective in cold, icy conditions and provide a natural boost to winter tire sales.

“Today's vehicles are coming out with lower-profile, wide, low-aspect-ratio tire sizes, which by their dimensional properties are not good for winter applications,” says Bob Toth, marketing manager for replacement tires at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. “The taller, skinnier tires of the past were better in the snow.”

The resurgence in rear-drive sedans, such as Chrysler Group's 300-Series and Infiniti G35, also has driven the growth.

Engineers at Cadillac, which has transformed its formerly front-wheel-drive lineup, save the new DTS, to either RWD or AWD layouts, suggest the industry should refamiliarize customers with winter tires now that RWD platforms have returned to favor.

Matt Karaba, vehicle controls engineer for Cadillac's Sigma series, says Cadillac is beginning to recommend winter tires for its customers who live in “extreme climates” that typically experience meaningful amounts of snow and/or ice.

And although Cadillac's SRX cross/utility vehicle and all-new STS sedan are available with AWD and Stabilitrak skid-control system, division engineers recently demonstrated for journalists that even traction-optimized vehicles can benefit from winter tires.

Although there have been tremendous advances in tire chemistry for all-season tires, Karaba says no all-season formulation can match the performance of a dedicated winter tire. Winter tires are engineered with a special tread compound that remains flexible in low temperatures. Rubber used for all-season radials begins losing some of its pliability at 45° F (7° C), says Normand Latremouille, winter category manager for Michelin North America (Canada).

Robert Kotarak, vehicle performance manager for Cadillac, says some dealers have programs to facilitate the semi-annual switch from all-season or summer tires to dedicated cold-weather tires.

The vehicle owner purchases four winter tires mounted on dedicated wheels. The dealer stores the winter wheels until late fall, when a notice is sent to the owner saying it's time to switch to winter tires.

The dealer makes the swap and stores the summer tires until it's time to change again in spring. Dealers of other RWD-oriented brands have similar programs in foul-weather markets.

Winter tires, because of their tread design and softness, improve stopping distance on ice by up to 30% compared with all-season radials and by 60% compared with summer tires, says Martien de Louw, president and CEO of Continental Tire North America Inc. The stopping distance on dry pavement is nearly the same.

The European market for winter tires has been healthy for many years and now is growing stronger. Certain Scandinavian countries mandate the usage of winter tires, as does the Czech Republic, de Louw says. In Europe, Continental's home market, the company sold 15.5 million winter tires in 2004, up from 13 million the prior year, the company says.

In Germany, which soon will phase in a government mandate for weather-appropriate tires, about 60% of motorists switch their tires each winter — a figure that has grown steadily for more than four years, de Louw says.

In North America, Canadians always have understood the virtues of winter tires for coping with consistently unforgiving frigid conditions.

The U.S. tire market, overall, is vastly larger, yet Canada's market for winter tires is more than twice that of the U.S., Goodyear's Toth says.

Canada's Quebec provincial government currently has a public-information campaign urging drivers to use “four winter tires,” in the event anybody considers two to be adequate. The province is considering a government mandate for winter tires, says Michelin's Latremouille, who is based in Quebec.

All prominent tire makers, including Michelin and Goodyear, have new winter tires on the market in North America, and some are designed specifically to improve traction for pickups and SUVs.

Goodyear, which introduced the first “all-season” radial, the Tiempo, in 1976, now sells its Assurance TripleTred in the U.S. Unlike all-season radials of the past, Goodyear insists the Assurance TripleTred truly is suited for all weather. “It's as good as a lot of winter tires in the marketplace, if not better,” Toth says. The tire is priced between $85 and $135.

As auto makers roll out more models equipped with electronic stability control (ESC), tire makers are hopeful winter tire sales do not dip proportionately. The fear is consumers will wrongly assume winter tires are less necessary.

“The brake will stop the wheel, but if the tires don't track properly, the most sophisticated control system won't matter,” Michelin's Latremouille says.

Back in suburban Detroit, BorgWarner's Milana is a firm believer in winter tires, which make his family van much more manageable when pulling a trailer loaded with a snowmobile and other winter recreation gear.

“As long as I have a vehicle that is challenged for traction, I will use winter tires,” he says.
with Bill Visnic